Understanding Food Labels

The labels on our food, from organic vegetables to USDA-inspected meat to cage-free eggs, can be confusing. How much do food labels actually tell you?

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Food System

By Amanda Starbuck, updated 6/14/2021

We all have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s produced, and where it’s from. But food companies are often not required to give us the information we want to know. The current rules on food labeling leave a lot of room for vague claims that make it difficult to differentiate between food produced by sustainable farmers using humane practices, and corporate agribusinesses greenwashing their products.

As a result, the array of labels found on meat, poultry and eggs can be overwhelming. You can and should be informed about what current labeling practices really mean and how they affect you – and this guide will help.

But we also need labels that are accurate and useful, and we won’t get them unless we tell our elected officials to put our interests ahead of those of corporations.

How Useful Are Food Labels?

These labels tell you something meaningful about your food and where it came from – though they may not mean quite what you think.

Certified Organic
Right now, the most meaningful label on your food, in terms of upholding specific government requirements, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal. For a product to be certified organic, it’s required to meet specific standards:

  • Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge;
  • Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated;
  • Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics;
  • Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (like cows) must have access to pasture; and
  • Animals cannot be cloned.

Donate toward work like this. We need to keep food labeling honest!

Country of Origin Labels

The U.S. requires Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on certain foods including chicken, seafood, produce, and some nuts – but the food industry has limited even this most basic element of

transparency. Until late 2015, beef and pork were also covered by mandatory country of origin labeling rules. But the meat industry pressured Congress to repeal the labeling requirement.

USDA Inspected
A USDA inspection seal means that your food meets certain quality standards and has been inspected by USDA employees or company employees under USDA supervision to rank its quality.

All USDA-inspected meat and poultry (the vast majority of the meat in grocery stores) should have a USDA seal of inspection and a code for the producing establishment. Meat and egg labels with a grade (such as USDA Grade A beef or Jumbo eggs) are graded based on quality and size, not production methods, so this seal tells you nothing about the company’s practices.

Private certification programs also exist, but they vary in standards, and it’s a good idea to do some research on their standards.

Treated with Irradiation
In grocery stores, food that has been irradiated must be labeled and marked with a radura symbol. Unfortunately, this labeling policy does not apply to restaurants, schools, hospitals, or processed foods containing irradiated ingredients.

Food Labels That Give Limited Information

Cage-Free Eggs
“Cage free” means that birds are raised without cages, but it tells you nothing about any other living conditions. For instance, cage-free eggs could come from birds raised indoors in overcrowded spaces at large factory farms.

Pasture Raised
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. This traditional farming method is typically done on a smaller scale than conventional factory-farmed animals. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much of its life the animal spent on pasture.

Grass-Fed
“Grass-fed” means that, after weaning, an animal’s source of food comes from grass or forage, not from grains such as corn. This does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were used on the animal or what conditions it lived in.

No Antibiotics
“Raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered” means that the animal received no antibiotics over its lifetime. Some large-scale producers feed animals antibiotics at low doses to prevent disease, which is linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may make people sick and are difficult to treat. This label does not tell you about other conditions where the animal was raised.

If an animal receives antibiotics for any reason, its meat, milk or eggs cannot be labeled “Certified Organic.”

No Hormones
The labels “raised without added hormones,” “no hormones administered” or “no synthetic hormones” all mean that the animal received no synthetic hormones. Hormone-free labels do not disclose what the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture.

Federal law prohibits the administration of hormones to poultry, veal, and exotic meat (like bison). Any hormone-free label on these products is intended to mislead shoppers into thinking that the product is worthy of a higher price. The USDA requires that these labels include a disclaimer: “There are no hormones approved for use in [poultry/veal/etc.] by Federal Regulations.”.”

However, federal regulations do permit the use of hormones in beef and dairy cattle, and for some uses in pork (such as for gestation). For instance, recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) is a synthetic growth hormone commonly injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. Hormones are also administered to beef cattle to speed up growth.

Thanks to years of activism, “rBGH-free” or “rBST-free” labels can now be used on milk products to indicate that the cows did not receive synthetic hormones. However, due to industry pressure, they must come with a disclaimer that the FDA acknowledges no difference between milk produced with or without the hormones.

Misleading Food Labels

Free Range
“Free range” labels are regulated by the USDA only for poultry produced for meat – it’s not regulated for pigs, cattle or egg-producing chickens. Nor are the requirements very high. Poultry can use the label if the chicken had any access to the outdoors each day for some unspecified period of time; it could be just a few minutes, and does not assure that the animal ever actually went outdoors to roam freely.

Natural and Naturally Raised
According to USDA, “natural” meat and poultry products cannot contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and they should be “minimally processed.” However, this label does not tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed, if antibiotics or hormones were used, or other aspects of production that consumers might logically expect from something labeled “natural.”

For all other foods (milk, eggs, and non-animal food products), the “natural” label is virtually meaningless.

Fresh
Contrary to what you might expect, the label “fresh” is used only on poultry to indicate that the meat was not cooled below 26 degrees F. Poultry does not have to be labeled as “frozen” until it reaches zero degrees F. This can be misleading to customers who assume that label means meat has not been frozen, processed or preserved in any way. The USDA does not define or regulate the use of the “fresh” label on any other type of products.

Pasture Raised
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much of its life the animal spent on pasture.

Bioengineered (GMOs)
In July 2016, Congress passed a weak federal law for labeling genetically-modified food (GMOs) that blocked states from requiring stricter GMO labels, such as existed in Vermont. It requires food companies to disclose whether their products contain GMOs, but they can make this information difficult to access. For instance, in lieu of using the “Bioengineered” label, companies can simply include a QR code, web address, or 1-800 number that connects consumers with more information. This requires users to have a cell phone and access to cellular data or Wi-Fi — and the leisure time to go through this cumbersome process for each product.

Despite industry claims, there is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of GMO foods, and the weak approval process for new GMO crops relies solely on testing by the companies that want to sell these new crops. That’s why we’re pushing to require clear labels on all foods with GMO ingredients. Only by standing up for transparency in our food will we get the information we want.

Donate toward work like this. We need to keep food labeling honest!